Lights, Camera, Action!

While you’re watching the Kentucky Derby this weekend, look for one of our very own Bay Ridgers behind the camera: Ken Woo. You’ll see him in his signature baseball cap, black shirt and blue jeans.

Tuned in

Ken behind the Camera

There’s nothing more exhilarating to Ken Woo than capturing extreme athletes and accomplished artists on camera as they go down in history. As a director of photography, Ken has been filming live and pre-recorded events for television for over 30 years. He grew up in front of the TV in the 50s, he says, and was captivated at an early age. “My dad was a camera bug, so I inherited that from him,” he adds.

Originally from Georgia, he landed his first job as a cameraman at a TV station in North Carolina. Eventually, he moved to California to work. Before going independent, Ken worked for NBC, CBS, ESPN, HBO, Showtime and other independent production clients. Among the many events he has covered are 13 Olympics games—both winter and summer, 22 Master’s golfing tournaments, the Triple Crown, the Tour de France, March Madness, and more.


The best of plans…

Go out the window when Ken is shooting live on location. Take the Kentucky Derby.  According to Ken, live events like these are timed down to the second, and everything is choreographed in 15 second increments. And the Kentucky Derby is only one 1 ½ minute race of 10 races filmed on that day. So he spends a lot of time in camera meetings figuring out how to coordinate everything, working with engineers to draw up the plans for all 10 races and the day’s accompanying events.

“The engineers document camera positions, every single electrical outlet, video outlet, electrical sources, and where all the technicians are located,” he explains. “Basically, it’s a floor plan to help us visualize how we’re going to move. It takes real choreography to have the cameras in the right positions. But we have to be flexible, as stories change. Something else comes up that’s important to capture, or there’s an accident. So the plan we start with at the beginning of a show always goes out the window.”

From the Triple Crown to the Tour de France


“Live shows are very difficult, physical, long days,” says Ken. Especially the Tour de France. Ken covered the 26-day long bike race on a motorcycle, perched behind a specially-trained driver who is skilled at navigating a windy, mountainous course through the French Alps in the heat, rain, and snow amidst any number of sudden crashes.

“I’m right in the field of play with the bikers,” he says. “The motorcycle drivers are licensed to drive the tour. They’ve got to be skilled, because of the terrain and with me climbing around like a monkey on the back. It’s really a dangerous job, when I stop to think about it, which, luckily, I don’t get too much time to do.”

Hot, hot, hot in Hawaii

In fact, “unbelievably brutal” is how Ken describes working on site at Iron Man in Hawaii. These are “really intense” days, where he’s up at 3 a.m. and on the back of a motorcycle or in a wet suit, under the blistering sun beating down on black lava fields, filming racers as they run, swim and bike in the 120 degree heat. Then it’s on to filming human interest stories at night before calling it a day around midnight.

And the Grammy goes to…


So Ken is now working more on the feature stories surrounding these events, which he prefers because they’re more artistic. Ken won a Grammy for his work on the We Are the World video. Written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie, the song and video were recorded in 1985 to fight famine.

“I can’t think of a more notable thing I worked on in my career,” says Ken. “I’ll never see an occasion like that again in my lifetime—that many hall of fame artists in one location for a great cause. I’ve done a lot of music events, but this was truly a special experience for me.

The tough part was keeping quiet about it for the two weeks before the program aired on TV. “I had the sweatshirt on when I was boarding a flight to Europe a few days later, and I wasn’t allowed to say what it was all about.”

Ken’s camera work has also earned him 23 Emmys—16 as director of photography in the sports and prime time categories, three for best feature as producer and four for Olympic production. That’s quite an Olympic feat!

Back in Bay Ridge

One of the things he loves best about his work is coming home to Bay Ridge. While exhilarating, his career can be exhausting, too. 14-hour physically demanding days take their toll, which is why Ken always looks forward to returning to Bay Ridge to recharge.

“No matter how wiped out I am coming home from the airport from a job, I get to the gates of Bay Ridge, and I let it all go,” he sighs. “I’ve traveled so much, and I know there aren’t many neighborhoods like this out there anymore. I didn’t know much about Bay Ridge till we moved here, but then we found out what a wonderful community it is. It’s so peaceful and relaxing. We’ve made some nice friends. And our grandkids love the Fourth of July. It’s so Norman Rockwell. We’re so lucky to live in such a great community.”

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–Michelle Ervin


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